The bar inside "Don't Know Tavern" on Light… (Gene Sweeney Jr., Baltimore…)
Don't Know Tavern in South Baltimore has always been a reliably quiet neighborhood bar, especially appreciated by Red Sox and Patriots fans. But in the past year, Don't Know has gone through more upheaval than it has in all the four years it's been in business.
In June, its longtime owner, Jason Zink, sold the business, partly to deal with the expense of a lawsuit that had been filed against him by five of the bar's former employees. In July, Zink settled the lawsuit, and soon after, new management took over.
That's what made me check it out again late last week. Under Ryan Cooper, a former general manager at the Irish pub Delia Foley's, the new Don't Know retains much of its former appeal. Despite a couple of new murals, not much has changed. It's still neighborly, plain, unlikely to rock anyone's boat. The shuffleboard is still around, and so is the refreshingly comprehensive drafts menu, which is the bar's best feature.
Zink bought what used to be called Single Fin's in 2007, redubbed it Don't Know, in a nod to his other South Baltimore bar, No Idea Tavern, and turned it into a sports bar, known for broadcasting Red Sox and Patriots games.
Two years later, he was slapped with the lawsuit. Three of the bar's former employees sued him for participating in what they argued was an employee-only tip pool; two other employees later joined the suit. The lawsuit was unusual because the rights of an owner who was also an employee — Zink served as a bartender — had never been addressed in the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, and so a decision could set a precedent.
In March, the court ruled that Zink violated federal labor laws by joining a tip pool where only employees who made minimum wage should have been allowed.
The whole affair, aside from setting a legal precedent, might have been most beneficial to the employees’ attorney, who collected the bulk of the $115,000 settlement Zink agreed to in July.
But, it also brought new management to Don’t Know, Cooper and John Leonard, who fully took over in late summer. These kinds of ownership shifts can always be transformational for bars, especially those as modest as this one.
It was especially promising here because of the managers’ experience: Cooper has seven years working at several of Marc McFaul’s bars, most recently, as G.M. at Delia Foley’s .
Don't Know's new management, Cooper and John Leonard, fully took over in late summer. These kinds of ownership shifts can be transformational for bars, especially those as modest as this one.
However, when I stopped by on a late Wednesday, it didn't seem that the new managers had changed much of the formula that kept Don't Know popular among its neighbors and young sports fans.
The bar has kept its basic look: pressed tin ceiling, a U-shaped bar surrounded by rows and rows of stools, at least 10 flat-screen TVs broadcasting ESPN and sports television, lots of beer ads. The two spacious rooms, behind and in front of the bar, have many high-top tables. And in the back, the bar also features its popular shuffleboard table. The new managers also retained the daily drink specials.
Beyond that, Cooper and Leonard have added a pair of murals from Marshall Adams honoring the Orioles and the Ravens, an attempt to draw sports fans that Don't Know hadn't previously courted.
The new owners, it must be said, inherited a bar that was in good shape. Before he sold the bar, Zink had just completed a renovation that included an upgraded menu and the addition of 12 new draft lines for a total of 30 — which includes Loose Cannon (mine was $5.50), Dale's Pale Ale and New Belgian Brewing. It was a change that allowed him to add "an American draught bar" to the bar's name, a tag it has kept.
Don't Know's name already conveys some ambivalence. If the new owners want to inspire a stronger sentiment about their bar, they'll have to do more to truly reinvent Don't Know.
Don't Know Tavern
Back story: Jason Zink took over Single Fin's and turned it into Don't Know in 2007. Zink ran Don't Know until this year, when he sold the bar to Ryan Cooper and John Leonard.
Parking: Scarce; street, metered-parking available.
Signature drink: Try a Loose Cannon, $5.50, one of 30 beers — including lots of craft brews — on tap. The regular domestics are also available.
Where: 1451 Light St.
Contact: 410-539-0231; dontknowtavern.com
Open: 5 p.m.-2 a.m. Mondays-Fridays; 10 a.m.-2 a.m. Saturdays-Sundays. The kitchen closes at 11 p.m. Tuesday-Saturday.
Price range: Beers are $4-$6; the bar has several daily drink specials. On game days, Miller Lite drafts are $3.